What's in a Name?

The new census form brings up a smorgasbord of cultural-identity issues -- and food metaphors.

Whenever someone asks Marcus Roybal about her ethnicity, which seems to be happening a lot these days, she simply glances at the back of her 82-year-old hand and checks the color of her skin.

"Chicano," she says.

But if you really want to know the truth, she's part Sioux and part Pueblo Indian, with a dollop of Spanish.

A day at the races: Census 2000's Adriana Zorrilla Velasquez paints by the numbers.
John Johnston
A day at the races: Census 2000's Adriana Zorrilla Velasquez paints by the numbers.

"So my maiden name is Garcia," she says.

Then again, when she was growing up in rural Colorado, she often said "white" when asked that same question.

"A lot of the time, American-Indians were more American than whites," she explains. "So I used that."

But whenever restaurant owners tried to kick her out because of her dark complexion, she showed them the green.

"I'd pull out a dollar bill," she remembers, "and say, 'What color is yours?'"

And her kids, well, you don't want to know about her kids.

"Some of them are Chicano and some of them are Latino and some of them are Hispanic," she says. "I have nine, you know. And they all say something different."

Which is why she likes the Census 2000 forms that hit mailboxes earlier this month. For the first time, the demographic survey not only includes boxes for Spanish, Hispanic, Chicano, Mexican-American, Cuban and Puerto Rican, but Latino as well.

"Oh, it's lovely," Roybal says. "They've got everything all right there together. Now people can stop arguing."

Yeah, right.

Or in the context of this story, "Oh, s."

But that's the plan, census officials say. By adding Latino, demographers hope to include almost everyone of Spanish-speaking descent, offering not only the standard meatloaf-and-mashed-potatoes menu, but a buffet of enchiladas, paella, plátanos, black beans and rice and chicharrones.

"It's a big thing," says Adriana Zorrilla Velasquez, a Census 2000 spokeswoman. "I'm getting a lot of calls about it. I think that's the most interesting part of this census. We're trying to paint a better picture of Hispanics because we're not just one thing. We come from many places and many backgrounds. Latinos can be of any race."

For instance: She knows people from Panama who are Chinese but consider themselves Latino, and she knows people from the Dominican Republic who are black but also call themselves Latino.

"As for me, I have four different races," Zorrilla Velasquez says. "I have some Colombian Indian, my father is Spanish, and my grandmother on my father's side is Italian. And I probably have some Arabic, too, because we come from the southern part of Spain. So that means I probably have some black, also. So that's five. I'm Latino and my skin is white. Actually, I'm yellow, but there's no category for that."

I know the feeling.

I'm Hispanic on my mother's side and Scottish/French on my dad's. My wife is full-blooded Hispanic (I'll use the meatloaf version for simplicity's sake). And my fifteen-month-old daughter is three-quarters Hispanic. I don't know what the hell we are.

Back where we come from -- New Mexico -- census-box categories never seemed to matter much until relatives gathered in the backyard over a cooler of beer and paper plates covered with hamburgers, potato salad and green chile.

"We're Spanish," my wife's grandma would say.

"No, we're not," her grandpa would counter. "This land belonged to Mexico, so we're all Mexicans, vieja."

"Well, you might be Mexican, but I'm Spanish!"

The story was the same in my family: My mother's mother was Spanish and Grandpa was Mexican. In the '70s, my mom was a Chicana, but then she became Basque when she attended art school. After a while, everyone got tired of fighting and settled on the generic compromise of Hispanic.

Then my wife and I moved to Los Angeles, where the preferred term was Latino. Not Spanish. Not Mexican. Not Chicano. And certainly not Hispanic.

Since I look like my Scottish-French dad, and have his last name, my opinion didn't really matter. But my wife became a lightning rod.

"Whenever I said 'Hispanic,' I got some lecture about how I was denying my Indian roots," she recalls. "I started saying 'Latina' to avoid the lecture."

Eventually, we returned to New Mexico as Latinos and started the argument all over again.

Since we moved to Denver, my wife has started calling herself "New Mexican." But that doesn't seem to work, either. In Colorado, the bloodlines are just as murky as they were in New Mexico -- about as clear as a bowl of menudo. And despite efforts to the contrary, the Census 2000 forms have only stirred the pot.

For example, Molly Martinez, like my grandma and my wife's grandma, believes her roots stretch all the way to Madrid.

"I consider myself Spanish," she says. "But since I was born here, I guess that makes me Spanish-American. Latino? Hispanic? I think those are just things made up by the younger people. Just call me Spanish."

Whether or not those labels are made up, don't call Joaquin Gonzales Spanish-American. A child of the civil-rights movement, he vividly remembers Corky Gonzales, the Crusade for Justice and the battles for self-determination. As far as he's concerned, there's only one word that describes him.

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